UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: Hey there, LIFE KIT listener. I know we don't have to tell you 2020 has been chaotic. The coronavirus pandemic has turned all our lives upside down. Suddenly, the straightforward parts of life, like going to the grocery store, felt scary and uncertain. Plans for school and work dramatically changed, not to mention the unbelievable amount of loss. And we know it's not over yet.
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ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Allison Aubrey.
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AUBREY: When the country went into lockdown early in the pandemic, stores, restaurants and schools all closed down, but liquor stores were deemed essential. They stayed open. It just goes to show how much alcohol is part of everyday life. In a prior episode, we covered all the social pressure to drink and how to find new groups and new activities to help you drink less. But it was a lot about socializing.
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NADIA SALDANA SPIEGLE: There was a Friday happy hour every time, and I would show up.
ELIZABETH GREENER: I made it a point to find social events that had other options.
JOSE RINCONES: Find an empty beer can and just fill it with tap water and carry that around the party. That way, nobody asks, and nobody wonders.
AUBREY: But in the era of the pandemic, there are new challenges. People drink out of isolation, uncertainty, maybe even boredom, not necessarily out of social pressure. And some people may be wondering as they stay home most nights, am I drinking too much?
My hunch is that there are millions of people who drink and are not comfortable with the relationship they have with alcohol, even if you couldn't plot them as someone with an alcohol problem.
KAMALA GREENE GENECE: You know, to be honest, I - my view and what I see is that that's actually the majority of people. The small percentage of individuals who have severe problems with alcohol or substances who end up going into rehab and treatment is the minority of individuals who have a problematic relationship with substance.
AUBREY: That's Kamala Greene Genece, a psychologist who specializes in addiction.
GENECE: Are you just interested in examining your relationship with substances? And so that's all we're inviting you to do, and let's see what it looks like.
AUBREY: So if you're ready to rethink how much you drink and why, this is going to take some self-reflection. In this episode of LIFE KIT, we can walk you through steps and strategies to assess your relationship with alcohol at a time when we're all at home more.
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AUBREY: The first step you can take is to think about why you drink. I spoke to Kamala about this.
GENECE: Are you using alcohol to cope with feelings, to cope with memories? And so it's important to really do an initial self-assessment in terms of what role alcohol is playing with your life because that will allow you to make specific changes based on the information that you gather.
AUBREY: During the pandemic, alcohol sales have ticked up. We spoke to R. Lorraine Collins. She's a psychologist at the University of Buffalo. And she says there's no reason to judge yourself about drinking, but you can ask yourself these questions.
R LORRAINE COLLINS: One of the things to think about is how much are you linking alcohol to kind of your day-to-day activities? Are you keeping alcohol as, you know, a special event, special beverage for limited situations, or are you engaging in alcohol use across the board and - or in more situations than really make sense?
AUBREY: And at a time when many of us are spending a lot of time alone...
COLLINS: It will become easier for some to link alcohol to a range of activities.
AUBREY: The next step is to start tracking exactly how much you drink. And know the definition of moderate drinking, which is no more than one drink a day for women or up to two for men.
COLLINS: One of the things that gets confusing for many people is that in their minds, a glass equals a drink. And so when you have mixed drinks, the classic example being the Long Island iced tea that, depending on the recipe, can have four or more shots.
AUBREY: And even if you're not drinking cocktails regularly, how about your nightly glass of wine? Is it really one drink, or is that jumbo wine goblet the size of your face holding more than you think?
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AUBREY: At first, alcohol gives us a lift. That's why the first drink feels so good. It loosens our inhibitions, which makes us want to drink more. But what people don't realize is that alcohol actually depresses the central nervous system.
COLLINS: The problem is that because people don't know about this depressant effect, they try to drink themselves out of it. So after one Long Island iced tea, if you're not feeling quite what you expected, you're like, oh, I'll have another one. And so then you're on to your eighth drink and really experiencing all sorts of acute effects of alcohol.
AUBREY: Lorraine says the trick is to be more mindful when you do drink so you're not suddenly having your fourth or fifth drink without even realizing it.
COLLINS: One of the things that's really useful is not to guzzle alcohol; it's to sip it. Even a beer can be sipped like fine wine. And it slows down the consumption.
AUBREY: And also make sure to add in nonalcoholic beverages between that beer or glass of wine.
COLLINS: You know, water, even if you want to make it more festive with a slice of lemon or lime or something like this. When you're drinking, have food available, have alternative, nonalcoholic beverages available, and that definitely will help in the drinking situation. And last but not least, if you're around somebody who is encouraging you to drink because they're having multiple drinks, is to learn how to say no in a diplomatic fashion.
AUBREY: Just say, I'm trying to cut back, or I'm not in the mood for a drink. And as part of reevaluating your relationship with alcohol, remember, we're creatures of habit, so don't be too hard on yourself.
GENECE: We are behaviorally conditioned animals, even if we don't want to admit that to ourselves. And so if you develop a conditioned relationship to doing a particular behavior every day at the same time, your body is going to start craving it when it gets to be that same time. And so the key to changing that relationship is to start substituting other behaviors so you can start developing conditioned reaction to different behaviors.
AUBREY: Kamala recommends reprogramming your day. It can be easier if you replace happy hour with a new habit.
GENECE: Say, for example, if you were usually now - after your, maybe, last Zoom meeting for the day, you were used to having a glass of wine at around 6 o'clock. I would recommend going for a walk at that time or maybe, you know, pulling up a favorite podcast or something like that that you like to do. So you can begin to substitute other pleasant activities during that very same time for at least two to three weeks so that you can begin to develop a new conditioned response to that other alternative behavior.
AUBREY: She says a good place to start is a two-week break from alcohol.
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GENECE: How difficult would that be for you? And what would come up for you as a result of that? Again, it's not a litmus test, like we're taking a COVID test, but it gives us information. What came up in those two weeks? Was it a breeze and you never thought about it again and you're like, hey, this is the best thing I've ever done, or was it really difficult and now you're recognizing that maybe you need to put in some more structures in your life to create some more distance between you and this particular substance?
AUBREY: After a few weeks, some people notice immediate changes. They say they feel healthier, have more energy. Maybe they're sleeping better and maybe even feeling less anxious. But the process can also unmask feelings and sensations and memories that had been covered up by alcohol. And this gives you a better sense of whether you may need some help.
GENECE: One of the things that we're coming to grips with in the substance use or substance misuse universe is that the opposite of addiction is attachment and connection. We as human animals want to be seen. We want to be heard. We want to be open with other individuals.
AUBREY: Kamala says there are lots of options, whether it's reaching out to family or friends, getting help from an addiction professional or tapping into support networks.
GENECE: The sort of silver linings or sort of the revolutionary steps that have come out of COVID is that all of the support groups - Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or SMART Recovery - all have extensive online meetings now. And so what I have found with many of the patients that I work with is that they have made a seamless transition to getting support in an online community. And many people have found it to be easier.
AUBREY: For people who are new to the process, online communities can kind of help you dip your toe in the water and learn more about the kind of help and support available. And lots of people who take a break from drinking will find they need support in some form, even if it's just something to distract you from your old routine, like joining a remote book club or trying a new recipe or reaching out to an old friend.
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AUBREY: And in closing, and this is your last tip, don't think about this break from alcohol as something that you have to do. Don't dread it. It's a pause. It's a break. It's a chance to rediscover and learn more about yourself.
GENECE: It's less about moving away from problematic - our relationship to alcohol, but to examining what are the positives that they can gain in their life without alcohol. Let's see what it's like if we don't drink. Maybe we hike farther. Maybe we have better conversations. So it's this idea of sort of just making a change and seeing if the positive ramifications of that or sort of the positive outcomes of that make you more interested in pursuing that for longer periods of time. And again, you may choose to use substances again, but you may also make a choice because of the positive outcomes of not using substances are just so rewarding that you're interested in going in that direction.
AUBREY: And if we are all stuck at home all winter, why not give it a try? What do you have to lose?
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AUBREY: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all sorts of topics from how to start a creative habit to how to start a garden. If you love LIFE KIT and you want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And we want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo are our digital editors. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.
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